My Op-Ed Daily News, October 21st 2018
Only five of New York City's 150 statues of historical figures are of women. As the city looks to correct this egregious imbalance, it should look to a little-known teenage aviator named Elinor Smith.
Ninety years ago today, on a clear October day, Elinor, then 17 years old, took off from Roosevelt Field to wing her way into aviation history by flying under all four of Manhattan's East River bridges in an open-cockpit biplane.
It was an extraordinary feat, never done by man or woman before or since. The clearance at various points between bridge and water is as little as 200 feet.
Some four months earlier, Amelia Earhart had become famous for being the first woman to fly the Atlantic — but as a passenger.
That same year, Smith set two endurance records. For the second, she stayed in the sky for 26 hours, 21 minutes. Meanwhile, Earhart wrote a book about her passenger experience that became a bestseller.
Within two years, by age 19, Smith had set speed, endurance and altitude records and been named the best female pilot in the country. She worked as a test pilot for both Bellanca and Fairchild aircraft companies before she was 20.
But Earhart is the woman forever immortalized as the icon of female pilots. Why?
As always, it's our reverence for those with a superior marketing plan. We bow down to actors. We worship athletes. We vote by name recognition.
In 1929, the year women were first allowed to enter transcontinental air races, a year after Elinor Smith had proved her mettle by flying under the bridges, she could not even get sponsorship to enter what screen star and humorist Will Rogers had dubbed the Powder Puff Derby. Smith was being blocked at every career turn by Earhart's then-publisher and publicist, George Putnam, who had sought Earhart out for the specific purpose of writing a bestseller about the transatlantic flight and then became enamored of her.
Earhart and Putnam married two years later.
Earhart's serious biographers recount the consistent rumors that the "mechanics" who almost always flew with Earhart were, in fact, doing most of the flying. Smith, in her autobiography, "Aviatrix," said she was blackballed by Putnam when she turned down a "mechanic" offer.
Translation: Smith was too good and Putnam wanted her out of the way so she wouldn't cut into the cult of celebrity he was building up around Earhart.
The Powder Puff Derby entrants took off from Santa Monica for the nine-day race without Smith. In Cleveland, Earhart came in third after an embarrassingly poor and bouncy landing. She was in fourth place the day before until the pilot in third place, Ruth Nicholas, cracked up at the last stop in Columbus.
The following year, Smith was voted by her peers as best female pilot in the country.
She went on to quit flying to raise a family. But she picked it up in her later years. At age 89, she made a simulated shuttle landing for NASA, and the following year flew an experimental plane at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
On the 90th anniversary of her bridge feat, let's celebrate Elinor Smith's lack of name recognition. Maybe let's even correct the record — by building a monument to her at the base of one of those spans.